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Italian Contenders for the Tour de France

The Italian peloton is enjoying a renaissance this season, having won all but one of the world cups, the semi-classic Ghent-Wevelghem, taking two of the three podium spots at this year’s first Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia, claimed the overall at the Tour of the Mediterranean, and have tasted countless stage victories. After last year’s lackluster showing, Italian cycling is back on top as the worlds super power in cycling and is set to continue it’s dominance in the one day classics and world cup events later this summer.

Buy what about July? There hasn’t been an Italian winner of the Tour de France since the now disgraced Marco Pantani scored his first and, so far, only yellow jersey in 1998. Last year’s poor spring performances by the Italians continued into the Grand Boucle, not one stage of the 2001 edition of the Tour was taken by an Italian and their best placed rider in the GC was 2000 Giro winner Stefano Garzelli in 14th. Here’s a look at the Italian contenders in this years Tour:

General Classification

Stefano Garzelli: Not competing due to a failed dope test in this year’s edition of the Giro d’Italia. Probenecid, a banned diuretic, was found in minute measurements after the fourth stage, the circumstances around his positive result remain extremely controversial, but are enough to keep him out of this years Tour.

Gilberto Simoni: Also not contesting this years Tour because of a failed dope test, this time for cocaine. He was much touted this winter as Armstrong’s main rival because of his exciting attcking style and now famous quote, “I can drop Lance in the mountains”. As a result of his absence, his Saeco-Longoni Sport team has also been withdrawn from the race, their spot was given to the French team Jean-Delatour.

Dario Frigo: Probably the Italians best bet for a high GC finish this year. He’s shown excellent form, recently winning the Italian national time trial championships. He rode well in the Giro before cracking on the climb to Folgaria, but claims that his preperation for the Giro was hindered by his 9 month suspension for drug offences and is much better prepared for this July.

Pietro Caucchioli: Third in the Giro, he will be competing in his first Tour de France this July, leading the similarly naive Allessio team. His biggest ally will be the distinctly styled Franco Pellizotti. Caucchioli is an exciting climber, but not a powerhouse in the TT’s. He’s still young and a top 10 placing would be an excellent result.

Francesco Casagrande: Expelled in disgrace for unsportsmanlike conduct during the Giro, Casagrande is one of the greatest climbers of his generation. His poor time trialing is a huge disadvantage as this year race has nearly 180km of time trialing in it, between the prolouge, team time trial, and the two individudal time trials. He’s said that he will focus his efforts on the Tour de Suisse, Vuelta, and summer classics, instead going to the Tour in a supporting role for young gun Ivan Basso and veteran Wladimer Belli.

Paolo Salvodelli: Winner of this year’s Giro d’Italia, he’s finally arrived at the level he was predicted to after his 3rd place in the 99 edition of the race. Il Falco won the Giro on the merits of his climbing, time trialing, and descending, but his team missed out on an invite for this July. However, as a Grand Tour winner, him and his team are gauranteed a spot next year.

Conclusion: Without the in-form Marco Pantani, the Italians are yet again coming to the Tour without any real contenders for the overall. Frigo has the possibility of a high placing, but has yet to prove himself over three weeks. Perhaps he’s similar to the veteran Swiss star Alex Zuelle who has stated that without drugs, he’s no good for stage races over a week. This year’s Italian hopes will be put on the untested 25 year old Ivan Basso who will be leading a strong and experienced Fassa Bortolo squad directed by the legendary Giancarlo Ferretti.

Stage Winners

Mario Cippollini: One of the most colorful and consistent riders of the peloton, he won 4 stages in 1999. This year he will be watching the Tour from his Tuscan villa as his Acqua & Sapone team was not invited.

Allessandro Pettachi: He capped off a prolific spring in which he dominated the sprint finishes of the early season stage races with a couple of good placings at the Giro d’Italia (mostly behind the soon-to-be absent Mario Cippollini), Pettachi will be the Italians best hope of beating the Mapei duo of Steels and Freire and the evergreen Erik Zabel.

Paolo Bettini: Having taken his second Liege-Bastogne-Liege this April, Paolo Bettini is a good bet for both climbing stages and small group sprints. He’s even proven that he can bunch sprint as well, having taken field gallops in the Tour de Langkawi before. He will shine most on the opportunist stages between the major mountain challenges.

Wladimer Belli: A bit too old to be a real threat for a GC position, this determined climber could find himself in a breakaway situation later in the race as the GC riders sort themselves out. He was very close last year in a similar situation, but was dropped by the Basque rider Roberto Laisieka who took the stage.

Max Sciandri: Riding for the experienced Lampre-Daikan squade, Sciandri is an intelligent veteran with a good sprint. He won a stage in 1995 with the Mg-Technogym squad and has desperately been trying to repeat that performance ever since. He has been close on several occasions and has a talent for finding himself in successful breaks.

Conclusion: Without Super Mario or il Pirata, Italy is missing their most successful stage winners from the past few years. Pettachi needs to show the same form he had this spring when he routinely beat the like of Zabel and Friere, but without a team suited for sprint leadouts, he’ll have to battle to overcome the powerful Telekom formation who will be focusing all of their efforts on Zabel due to the absence of their GC rider, Jan Ullrich.

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